The snow crunched under his booted feet as he ran, breath raw and steaming. A hundred thousand questions, but he couldn’t put any to words, not yet, not while they were still close enough behind him. They’d loose the dogs soon, and he had to get to the water, had to, his life depended on it. Somewhere along the way, a branch had whipped his cheek, and it stung as the blood ran warm against his cold skin. His body railed against him, threatened to give out before he found safety, but he promised it rest soon, and prayed to long ago and lonely gods that he would do what he could to fight those who’d taken over the homelands of his love, if only they would save him.
At first, he thought perhaps one had listened. The sounds of pursuit diminished. He didn’t dare slow; he could smell the water calling him — it wasn’t close enough to be safe yet, but it was close, all the same, and his blood sang in remembrance.
He dared a smile and put on a renewed burst of strength as he ran, pulling off his gloves and tearing at his coat and shirt, baring his skin to the frigid air — and then he heard them:
Panic seized him, shook his bones within his body, and he stumbled over a root and hit the forest floor with a cry of fear and pain. His palms were cut open from the shale beneath the snow, and blood pattered down, red on white.
“I’m near the shore,” he said aloud. “Almost. I’m almost there,” he wept, and struggled to his feet, pushing harder.
He broke through the underbrush and found himself in the open, clattering down over the shale beds that led to the lapping waters of Iceling Bay, and tore the rest of his clothes from his body as he heard the baying of the hounds draw ever nearer.
He reached the waters’ edge as the dogs emerged from the treeline, followed shortly by the Princeguard themselves.
“HOLD!” shouted the Captain, her eyes fierce, furious. “In the name of the King! Go no further!”
“I have no King!” he returned, his breath steaming in the frigid air. He ran into the water, feeling the sharp sting of it send needles into his flesh. It chilled so sharply it burned, and he felt it pull him under, cradle him, accept him, promise him safety.
The guard reached the water’s edge, and called back their hounds in frustration. Most turned back, retreating from the icy bite of the bay, but two–too consumed by the need to catch their prey–boldly surged forth, baying and frothing, disappearing into the dark waves. The Captain cursed, dismounting and running for the waves, shouting for the animals to obey. Their hunt would not be denied, however, and the last she saw of them, they were merely shadows like the runaway, melting into the grey chill of the Iceling.